In the ever-spinning carousel of detective fiction, the same old tricks surprisingly never grow old. Here, the protagonist, regardless of ethnicity or gender, is always some kind of quirky genius, a master of deductive reasoning, tackling a mystery that, at first glance, looks to lead only to dead ends. Usually, the suspects are an interesting mosaic of quirky and standout characters, all with some kind of motivation that could incriminate them. The story does not get straight to the point, either—it twists and turns, muddying the waters before the protagonist finally, inevitably, spots the solution that has been hiding in plain sight the entire time. Change the scene, swap out the faces, and one has the makings of a tried-and-true formula and, ultimately, a genre.
Among the many iconic characters detective fiction has produced over the years, few have the longevity of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Born of Christie’s prolific imagination, Poirot, the meticulous Belgian with an iconic mustache, has been exercising his “little grey cells” since his introduction in 1920 in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” The character, defined by his methodical approach and almost obsessive attention to detail, became a genre mainstay, appearing in dozens of Christie’s novels and short stories until her death in 1976.
Perhaps no Poirot story is more widely known than Murder on the Orient Express. Originally published in 1934 and met with extremely positive reviews, the revenge story became an instant genre classic, one that has received a number of adaptations over the years. In 2017, British actor and director Kenneth Branagh brought Poirot back to the big screen with a lavish, big-budget adaptation of the story, complete with an ensemble cast that included the likes of Oscar winners Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, as well as popular names like Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, and Michelle Pfeiffer, among others.
Branagh’s Poirot sports a luxuriant, extravagant mustache, fitting with the character’s grandiosity, and exudes eccentricity, fastidiousness, and an unparalleled intellect, consistent with Christie’s original portrayal. Yet, Branagh adds a modern finish to the proceedings, infusing Poirot with a sense of moral complexity and emotional depth that makes him more accessible to contemporary audiences. While remaining a master of deduction, Poirot also reflects on his past and grapples intensely with the moral ramifications of justice that looks a little too much like vengeance, providing a surprisingly nuanced take on the character that both pays homage to Christie’s original work while exploring the internal conflicts and contradictions that define human nature in the twenty-first century.
Branagh’s Poirot films, while being traditional murder mysteries like their source material, nevertheless peel back the layers of Poirot’s character, revealing a depth and moral ambiguity not always present in previous iterations. Both Murder on the Orient Express and its 2022 follow up, Death on the Nile, showcase a Poirot who is as much a philosopher as he is a sleuth.
In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot is drawn into a tragedy of justice and revenge. The case is much more than a simple whodunit, however, becoming a profound moral puzzle that questions where justice ends and revenge begins. Poirot is empathetic here, torn between the law’s black-and-white dictations and the messy emotional hues of righteous vengeance. The culmination of the mystery forces him more into the role of a judge rather than a detective, burdened with weighing the scales of justice against compassion.
Death on the Nile continues this exploration, entangling Poirot in a web of love, obsession, and betrayal that blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. The detective finds himself in murky waters once again, where passion begets violence, and the memory of the tragic death of his own great love, Katherine, lingers from first frame to last.
This version of Poirot, with his moral struggles, is distinctly modern, being a psychologically complex take on the character that is nonetheless rooted in old-fashioned sensibilities so frequently associated with Christie’s mysteries. He reflects modern uncertainties that see justice as not always being clear-cut, with the complex understanding that even the noblest of hearts can be led astray by circumstance and emotion. Branagh’s Poirot is a man who recognizes the darkness within all of us, making him not only a more relatable character but also a mirror, attempting to unravel the “bundle of paradoxes” that is human nature, reckoning with the moral ambiguity of the modern world.
Most recently, just in time for the spooky season, Branagh released the third film in the series, A Haunting in Venice (2023). An adaptation of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party (1969), the film shifts gears stylistically to bring in elements more commonly seen in horror films. The feature uses this approach to delve into Poirot’s psyche, bringing to light a man not just haunted by the intricacies of human depravity, but by the existential questions that rattle the very core of his being. Amidst the eerie canals and masquerades of Venice, Poirot is confronted with what seems to be the supernatural, nudging him towards the contemplation of a higher power, a concept that he has, true to form, compartmentalized and set aside, much like the unresolved emotions for Katherine.
This Poirot becomes a quintessential example of what Flannery O’Connor deemed Christ-haunted—individuals who, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, cannot escape the profound influence of the divine and the spiritual turmoil it provokes. Branagh’s Poirot, meticulous and grounded in the rational, finds the spectral echoes of Venice’s waterways shaking his empirical foundations, mirroring the South’s cultural ethos in O’Connor’s work. Just as, to O’Connor’s point, the American South grapples with an omnipresent spirituality, Poirot faces the inescapable implications of a world that might indeed be underpinned by forces beyond human understanding.
The titular “haunting” here is twofold—Poirot is visited not only by the metaphysical but also by the very personal ghost of his past, his beloved Katherine. Her memory, intertwined with the inexplicable events he confronts, suggests a universe more complex than his deductive reasoning can compass. The story becomes a confrontation with his limitations, a humbling and unsettling experience for a man who lives guided singularly by his intellect.
Such a journey, where personal loss bleeds into existential crisis, marks Poirot as a “Christ-haunted” figure. He stands on the precipice of human understanding, a genius beleaguered by the fundamental mysteries of existence itself. The narrative smartly positions Poirot’s personal haunting alongside the larger, more universal haunting of Christ’s shadow over human consciousness, making him a vessel through which both he and the audience can explore the profound uncertainties and spiritual anxieties endemic to the human condition.
Branagh’s Poirot, then, is not just a detective solving crimes but a pilgrim navigating the labyrinth of the soul’s darker questions, reflecting the human quest for meaning in a world that is, as G. K. Chesterton so brilliantly noted, almost logical.